Website Optimization Causation vs Correlation
Credit: Jurevicious Studios

When you focus heavily on your SEO, it can be extremely difficult to decide which of your tactics are working and which are falling flat. Over time, you’ve probably employed hundreds of different strategies to a single site. Using keywords, getting backlinks, and buying traffic are all ways you might have tried to boost your search engine page ranking (SERP). With SEO, your goal is to drive traffic to your website based on your placement in a list of Google search results. When you finally achieve that goal and you notice that you’ve naturally jumped up in your search results ranking, it’s important to take note of which strategy caused the jump.

 When you determine how you actually achieved your goal, you can continue to do the same thing and achieve it over again a few times. However, when you have months and months worth of strategies built up, it’s almost impossible to figure out which might be the cause of the increase. One important concept to keep in mind during this analysis is the difference between correlation and causation. Scientists and researchers rely heavily on this difference when making sense of their research findings and those that don’t make outrageous and inaccurate claims. Causation is the variable that brought on the specific set of results, whereas correlation occurs when two or more variables were also present in the study but did not cause the results.  

A famous example of a study that did not successfully separate causation from correlation was one that claimed that increased ice cream sales were the cause of more drowning deaths in a certain area. It’s highly unlikely that the consumption of ice cream was the cause of drowning. Instead, the cause was the warm weather associated with more ice cream sales, which was also the cause of more people swimming. When more people swim, more people will drown. Ice cream was a correlation in the study, not a causation.

This is important to remember for your SEO analysis so that you do not falsely attribute your success to a single thing. When you see your SERP increase, you might think it’s a direct result of your efforts and continue to put money into the same strategies. Unfortunately, it’s not always a result of your hard work, so you should take a step back and consider the other variables at work.

Success or failure in your SERP could be a result of any of the following, so it’s important you take the proper steps to track your efforts. That way, you can more easily determine what caused the change.

Your Efforts

In some cases, your increase in SERP might be directly a result of your SEO efforts, and you should give yourself a pat on the back. However, before you make a guess about which strategy was the one that actually worked, you should be tracking every change you make. Document every new technique you employ, because you never know when your SERP could drastically jump up or down.

Track your efforts in the following ways:

  • Track keywords: Over time, you’ve probably used a lot of keywords on a single site for different reasons. Make sure you’re documenting each keyword and the day you applied it in a simple Excel sheet. Alongside each keyword, indicate your placement on the list of search results. Over time, it will become clearer which keywords work and which don’t.
  • Track On-Page Changes: You might try making changes to your optimization by changing the on-site information meant to attract Google’s spiders. If you adjust the title tags or keyword density of any one page on your website, keep track of these alterations. That way, an increase or decrease in SERP can be traced back to them if necessary.
  • Track Links: You can determine which inbound links are aimed at your site by using Majestic SEO or Open Site Explorer. When you figure out which links are inbound to your site, keep track of them by determining the page rank of their hosting site and the anchor text used for the link.
  • Track Social Efforts: Keep a document that is updated every time there is a change in your social media popularity. The number of profile followers, “likes,” status updates, and URL mentions on social sites should all be compared against your SERP at any given time.

Your Competitors’ Efforts

Your SERP changes might not even be a result of your savvy. Instead, they might be a direct result of your competitors’ failure to rank higher than you. For that reason, it’s important to try keeping track of your competitors’ efforts so that you can see which mistake might have led to your increased ranking.

Basically, you should create the same documents for your competitors as you created for yourself. Track their page rank against their keywords, their social media efforts and their inbound links. If they mess up, you’ll see what brought you closer to the top, which will prevent you from throwing money at the wrong strategy. If they bump you down to a lower ranking, you’ll be able to learn from their efforts and apply the strategy to your own site. 

In some cases, your SERP increase or decrease will not be a result of your actions or even those of your competitors. Google might have changed its metrics system, or the change might be a result of outside efforts such as PR campaigns. Without properly tracking your efforts though, it will be impossible to determine the cause. Knowing what caused any changes in your SERP will give you a leg up. An increase in SERP can be repeated if you know what caused it, and a decrease in SERP can be avoided and even reversed so that you’ll always stay closer to the top.

Remember, correlation is not causation, so never assume you know the cause for your SERP change without proper tracking and analysis. SEO ranking is an important factor in getting visitors to your site, so these time-consuming tracking efforts will pay off in the end.